Sunday, February 22, 2015

Book Review 339: A Love Affair with Southern Cooking

A LOVE AFFAIR WITH SOUTHERN COOKING: Recipes and Recollections, by Jean Anderson. 434 pages. Morrow, $32.50

I was pleased to see Jean Anderson pass both litmus tests for understanding Southern cooking: no sugar in the cornmeal and no cherries in the ambrosia.

“A Love Affair” is not meant to be a comprehensive account of Southern cooking. Rather, it relates her experience growing up in Raleigh, working in the mountains as an extension homemaker agent and then writing about food for women’s and gourmet magazines from New York.

Running along the righthand pages is an amusing, not always accurate, timeline of events in Southern gourmandise. Principal among these were the concoction of innumerable varieties of fizzy bellywash. It is amazing that no one (so far as I know) has bottled a fizzy sweet tea . . . hey, I think a moneymaking idea just popped into my head.

Anderson’s personal history means that the recipes and anecdotes are heavy on the wealthy matrons who live in photogenic mansions along the James River, while what I call the chicken-fried-steak sector of Southern cooking (as exemplified for teevee watchers by Paula Deen) is hardly mentioned.

In fact, I don’t think there is a single recipe that calls for opening a can of condensed soup.

The book delves into the earliest history of Southern food but, unsurprisingly, has nothing to say about the miserable situation of the poorest, who were reduced to a diet of endless fatback, cornbread and coffee flavored (not sweetened) with blackstrap molasses. Such a diet was deficient in nearly every trace nutrient but especially vitamin D and niacin, so that all across the cotton belt, the natives were slack-jawed with pellagra and the children spindly with ricketts.

You may have seen photographs of cabins with cotton growing on every foot of ground right up to the door. Those people were too poor to have a chinaberry tree by the door or a patch of greens. 

For Southerners in exile, perhaps the most valuable part of the book is a long section on sources. The Internet has saved the old ways, or at least made it possible for home cooks to continue the old ways, by making it possible to obtain special ingredients (mayhaw jelly or canned creecy greens, say) that by the 1980s had become downright hard to find because the demand was so thin.

It is still thin but by extending the catchment area, suppliers are able to keep making some of the old-time ingredients. Expect to pay, though. Only the well-to-do can afford to eat low on the hog nowadays.

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